Buddhism and Thailand

January 28, 2013

This month, I enrolled in a 4 week course on Buddhism led by a member of our Unitarian Congregation here in Edmonton. I’ve always been interested in Eastern religions and the opportunity of this course coupled with my first opportunity to visit South East Asia, proved to be a great learning opportunity.

On the first evening of the course we were discussing basic Buddhist concepts including, of course, the Four Noble Truths, the first of which is that all life is suffering. These kind of all inclusive statements always make me suspicious -especially when they don’t align with own experience. In a similar way that I reject the Christian idea that I am an inevitable sinner, (though I do make mistakes) I have trouble conceiving of my life as continuous suffering.  With the caveat that I realize that I am a privileged male, with high status job, in a rich country, I mentioned this confusion  to the class and the course instructor. She wondered if my moments of anger weren’t suffering (but I don’t get  angry that often either) and I later reflected that certainly the degeneration of the body through aging causes suffering as most recently experienced with death of my Mother a few months ago. Nonetheless, I wasn’t sure about the veracity of this first Noble Truth.

The evening after the second class of the seminar, I headed off to Bangkok to deliver the keynote at the Asian Regional Association for Open Courseware and Open Education Conference. The trip went well and I was met at the airport by my ever attentive Thai hosts, and driven to a nice hotel in downtown Bangkok. The next few days were spent touring the quite amazing sites, palaces, historic and modern temples in this capital city and attending the conference. It is a wonderful and privileged way to see the sites, with a local faculty member from the Thai Cyber University Project (my hosts for the whole journey) to guide and translate and a private driver


and the company of colleagues from Japan and the US. My talk went pretty well and the food, conversation and “networking” was great.   My hosts heard that I was interested in hammered dulcimer music and found a shop that sold me traditional Thai Khim, for a very reasonable price. Now, if I can only learn to tune and play it!!

Four days after my arrival in Thailand, we took a 70 minute flight to  Sakon Nahkon, capital of a state in North Eastern Thailand not far from the Laos border. This second conference was for an annual meeting of the computer service directors from all Thai Universities, held at Kasetsart University an Agricultural University. We attended the opening ceremony, wore our VIP badges, but the proceedings were in Thai, so we didn’t add much and spent the afternoon touring the rice, cotton and forestry test plots at the University.

That is when suffering struck!  A small discomfort in my stomach soon turned into a now becoming too familiar acute gastritis attack. The next 48 hours were spent retching and moaning about the suffering in my miserable life.  My hosts were very understanding and I was visited by a pharmacist and a physician and was relived from having to give my second lecture of the trip.

The Lord Buddha, had indeed taught me a lesson about suffering!

I recovered, though still a bit sore, for a two final days of touring, notably to the beautiful temple on the banks of the historic Mekong River. On our final day we visited  Ban Chiang World Heritage site, where evidence of brass and iron tool production from as early as 5500 years ago has been discovered – causing historians to rethink the Euro/African/Chinese centric view of early bronze age tool development.

We visited probably over 10 temples, all of which were very ancient, in very active use, or both. Orange robed monks were much in evidence in both towns and in the rural areas. Buddhism is a part of the day to day to lives of nearly everyone, as evidenced by the shrines in the yards of most houses. The monks, whose daily food is acquired each morning from the people and must be consumed by noon, treat this ‘begging’ as a gift to the people that allows them to earn good karma.

As expected the numbers of poor people, crowded cities, traffic jams and heat (for Canadian in January) were a bit much, but what stands out for me about this trip is my lesson on suffering, and the incredible kindness, constant smile and palms together greetings and gifts of the incredibly generous Thai people.


Joseph Priestly – The Man Who Invented Air and Unitarianism

May 27, 2012

Here is a link to the text of the sermon I did at the Westwood Unitarian Fellowship on April 15 2012.

The title comes from the great book by Steve Johnson, The Invention of Air. Priestly was an 18th century scientist, minister and radical political critic. He won great fame as the inventor of carbonated water and the first to isolate oxygen and many other gases. His outspoken politics and support for the American and French revolutions caused his home and lab to be burnt by the mob in in the United Kingdom and he was forced to less to the US.

He serves as an example of a great renaissance man, an inspiration – and a cautionary note, to us today.

 

 

 


April 15, 2012

The following the text I presented at Westwood Unitarian Congregation this Sunday. It is not scholarly referenced, but I hope does justice to Steven Johnson, whose book the Invention of Air inspired the talk, and Joseph Priestly who lived it!

Terry

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Joseph Priestly: The Man who Invented Air and Unitarianism

By Terry Anderson

Westwood Unitarian Congregation – April 15, 2012

Like many Unitarian Universalists I did not grow up in a UU church and thus my understanding and appreciation of UU history has been acquired in a splotchy fashion through occasional sermons and articles. In fact, I was brought up in a very strict (but loving) Baptist home and thus my familiarity with Bible stories and Christian history far surpasses my knowledge of Unitarian history and stories. My first encounter with Unitarians was the family who lived across the street from us in Calgary. As kids we were quite astounded (and envious) to see that they didn’t have to go to Church in the summer. This was before I understood that Unitarians were the only people that God trusted enough, to give them the summer off. My Christian faith began to waiver and collapsed during undergraduate University days, however, my Baptist conditioning was so strong, that I felt guilty sleeping in on Sunday mornings, and thus joined the Unitarian Church of Edmonton when I was 21.  As you know I still attend UU church most Sunday mornings. The big attraction for me is the freedom of religious thinking, the challenge to come to my own interpretations of life’s mysteries and to joining a community of religion survivors.

But today’s talk is not about me, but about one of the earliest and greatest Unitarians. This is a talk about history and especially of the life and times of Joseph Priestly. I’ve titled this talk the Man who Invented Air and Unitarianism.  It is hard to imagine how any human actually ‘invented air’ but I’ll detail how prior to Priestly’s work, people understood air as a single substance and no idea why some kinds of air sustained life, while others poisoned it. Equally it is hard to argue that any one single person “invented Unitarianism” Certainly the idea of a non Trinitarian theology was developed centuries earlier in Romania, but Priestly’s co-founding of the London Unitarian Meeting House in 1774, was the first use of the word Unitarian in English to describe a denomination and was the direct predecessor of modern British and American Unitarian churches. Read the rest of this entry »


Unitarians and Religion on the Net

March 11, 2012

I was pleased to hear Rev Brian Kiely talk this morning at Westwood Unitarian Congregation, where I am a long term member. Brian spoke about the effect, impact and opportunity presented by the Net for Unitarianism. His talk was inspired by a blog post from Peter Morales the current President of the US Unitarian Universalist Association.  Morales argues that the day of large churches and exclusively face-to-face communities is over, and that both mileniums and boomers are demanding organizations that allow for more flexibility, multimode interactions and greater networking opportunties. Brian reinforced these ideas with a challenge to broaden Unitarian contribution, engagement, influence and service beyond the increasingly aged population who shows up at Church on Sunday monrings.

These messages were, of course, “music to my ears” as I have preaching this message for over a decade. The service this morning reminded me of a talk I gave in 20o0  to the Canadian Unitarian Council annual meeting  in which I outlined three generations of net-enhanced churches (Sigh,  after an hour search through old machines, CD roms and flash drives, I think the text of this paper is truely gonzo! – Not to self – Get organized!!)

The first generation (where Westwood is today) uses the Net to facilitate  and adminstrate face-to-face organization. Our Westwood website is an example of a first generation tools as it serves as a useful resource for general information, announcmeents, newsletters and docuement management for our largely place-based organization.  The second generation (which Brian was urging us to grow into) blends face-to-face activities with net-based ones. For example holding meetings, rites of passage and celebrations in SecondLife, via SKYPE or using a myriad of other means by which spiritual and community activities take place both in person and on the Net. The eco-advantages of this blending are obvious, but more importantly it opens the door for participation beyond geographic borders. It also meets the lifestyle  of those who are managing an increasing large part of thier social, professional and leisure activities online. Brian also noted the capacity to add backchannels to Sunday service, running up twitter feeds, as reactions to or comment on the live service from F2F or distant net-based participants, as is comingly done in many of the Ed tech conferences that i attend these days.  The Third Generation I overviewed was religious or spiritual organizations that were “net-native” and that manage to broach temporal and geographic boundaries entirely by existing exclusively online. Even in 2000 a few of these “cyber churches” were operating but now a see a listing  of 23 Christian Cyberchurhes and numerous links to cyber Buddhism, Digital Islam and TechnoPaganism.

The key message from Brian was both the opportunity and the need to develop a support and outreach network that nourishes and energizes those  who idenify as Unitrains (or lapsed Unitarians) or the much larger groupo of people who can’t stand dogmatic, creedal religion, but who already belive and ascribe to the 7 principles of Unitarian- Universalism  (even if they have newer heard of them)!!. Many people today are socially committed to justice, seek diverse forms of spiritual, intellectual and social stimulation and learning, but they are not now, and never will be ,”church people”.

Groups, Nets and Sets in Religion and in Education

The talk also resonated  with work that Jon Dron and I have been doing on the type of social organziations that we use in education, but now I see they are equally relevant to religious organizations. The first of our “taxonomy of the many” is the well known group. Groups have been the focus and major organizational model for both classrooms and local religious congregations. Groups excel at building trust,  creatng and sustaining strong links among members and creating the extensive support systems that have sustained human life from earliest tribal origions to modern families. Groups however can be marred by group think, exclusiveness, and manipulation by powerful and occasionally unscrupulous leaders including teachers or ministers. Groups are the organization that defines Westwood and most other religious organizations today.

The second aggregation that Jon and I wrote about is Networks. Networks connect indiviudals and groups with a mix of strong and week ties. They are typically very fluid and bursty as network members slip in and out of active participation. Leadership in nets is mch more distributed than in groups, and thus a diversity of idea and background much easier to support. Networks arise at denominational level in Christian Churches and the network itself is sustained by strong groups at congregational level. Social Capital Theorist, Ronald Burt wrote that “members of networks are at higher risk of having good ideas” – a goal for both education and any thinking religion!

The final aggregation is Sets, in which indiviudals or larger groupings or even objects are sorted and selected by nature of belonging to a defining set. One doesn’t join a set, rather, a set is calculated based upon the behaviour of otherwise unconnected individuals. Sets allow us to discover and utilize the ways in which we are like (and unlike) members of other sets. For example, one can use the net to find the set of Youtube videos, or facebook posts that have been “liked” the most times in the last week, or find the set of people who recently purchased a partciular book on Amazon. From this set we can find links to other sets or make inferences such as  determining what other books they also purchased or are likely to purchase. We are just beginning to develop aggregation and analytic tools to exploite sets for edcuational and religious use, but marketers are becoming very good at using set techniques for advertising, solicitation and recruitment purposes.

So to conclude, as I had predicted over a decade ago, the Net is becoming a dominent influence on religious institutions, as it has on education, commercial and government organizations.  Our challenges for religious organizations, as other institutions, is to learn how to best exploite the affordances of these very powerful tools, while not isolating or turning off either those who “get it” or those who wish it would “get lost”.